The man in the garish red jacket who was announcing the names of the drivers to the crowd as they walked on to the track for the pre-race parade had reserved a special welcome for Lewis Hamilton.
He worked himself up into full Michael Buffer mode as the seven-time world champion climbed into the vintage car that was to carry him around the street circuit. ‘You love America,’ the announcer yelled, ‘and America loves you.’
It felt as though he was right on both counts. When Martin Brundle approached the former basketball superstar, Shaquille O’Neal, on the grid to ask him how he was enjoying the evening, Shaq kept his answer short and to the point. ‘Lewis Hamilton, baby,’ he said.
Hamilton has not won a grand prix since he triumphed in Saudi Arabia in December 2021 and everyone knew he would have dearly loved to have ended his drought here in the US, where he spends much of what rare periods of downtime he can carve out of his race schedule.
He had also been a champion of staging the race in Sin City even in the face of widespread cynicism and opposition to the event from several of his rivals, particularly the man who has usurped him as world champion, Max Verstappen.
Lewis Hamilton on a golden vintage car with Sergio Perez before the Las Vegas Grand Prix
Hamilton, decked out in fashionable gear as ever, was seen chatting with Max Verstappen
Hamilton’s race was a disappointing one, coming in seventh place after colliding with Carlos Sainz and Oscar Piastri
Add to all that the fact that his friend, pop star Justin Bieber, had been given the honour of waving the chequered flag and it was clear that the Mercedes star was sentiment’s choice to win the penultimate race of a season that has been utterly dominated by Red Bull.
It was not to be. Hamilton started in 10th place but fell further down the field after he had to slow to avoid a coming-together at the first corner and was hit from behind by the Ferrari of Carlos Sainz.
As Verstappen, Ferrari’s Charles Leclerc and Verstappen’s Red Bull team-mate Sergio Perez engaged in a thrilling battle for the lead, Hamilton fought his way back until he collided with McLaren’s Oscar Piastri on the 16th lap, which caused a puncture to his rear right tyre.
‘I thought I didn’t have a puncture immediately,’ Hamilton said, ‘so I was accelerating and just as I got alongside the pit lane entry, I felt the rear was moving, and I was too late to come in. So I had to do a whole slow lap. I must have lost like 40 seconds or something.’
Hamilton was never in contention to win. For the second season in succession, he has been hampered by a sub-standard car and even though he is out-performing team-mate George Russell, yesterday’s result made it mathematically impossible for him to catch Perez for second place in the drivers’ championship.
So Hamilton had to settle for a different kind of win. If the last two seasons have been fallow years for him, he has grown even more into an impressive ambassador for a sport in which he has a strong claim to be the greatest racer in history.
On Thursday, he had spoken well about the lure and the glamour of racing in Las Vegas and put the grand prix here in its cultural context. While Verstappen had carped about what he felt was the emptiness of a spectacle predicated on Hollywood glitz, Hamilton had said he felt the sport’s return to Vegas was an important step forward.
And by the end of the race, he had been proven right. After a miserable start to the race weekend on Thursday when the first practice session was cancelled after nine minutes and the second one not finishing until 4am in front of empty grandstands, the race itself was a thrilling advert for the sport.
The legendary British driver was forced to pit on both occasions he collided with Sainz and Piastri
Hamilton has not won a Formula One race since 2021, and is now mathematically not going to finish second
Vegas provided a visually stunning backdrop, as everyone knew it would, but it was the drivers who stole the show. There was a galaxy of stars from the world of film and music and sport on the grid before the race but none of them could compete with the men who raced around this street circuit.
Even if the race for the drivers’ title ended long ago, this grand prix was a reminder of the daring of Formula One, of the bravery and skill of its drivers and of its capacity to take the breath away with the speed and the precision of the action.
It was a race full of overtaking, of sparks that flew into the air as the cars hurtled down The Strip, of daring passing manoeuvres, particularly at the left hand corner where Sands Avenue meets Las Vegas Boulevard and the cars accelerate away again past Treasure Island and Bellagio and Caesars Palace.
It felt like the start of a beautiful relationship and gave Hamilton some satisfaction as he comes to the end of another frustrating season, hoping that next season he will get a better shot at winning the eighth drivers’ title that would take him beyond the record he shares with Michael Schumacher.
‘All those that were so negative about the weekend and were saying “it’s all about the show, blah, blah, blah,”’ Hamilton said, ‘I think Vegas proved them wrong.’
The Las Vegas circuit was originally littered with errors but the race itself was a success